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State v. Stewart

Supreme Court of Kansas

April 28, 2017

State of Kansas, Appellee,
Maurice Orlando Stewart, Appellant.


         1. Premeditated intentional murder and felony murder are not separate and distinct crimes, notwithstanding their considerable differences. Rather, premeditated murder and felony murder are alternative ways by which a person can commit the singular crime of first-degree murder.

         2. When the State prosecutes a defendant for first-degree murder under the alternate theories of premeditated intentional murder and felony murder, the jury must consider both theories before arriving at a verdict on the charge of first-degree murder. If the jury finds a defendant guilty under either theory of first-degree murder, it does not consider second-degree murder or any other lesser included offense.

         3. A defendant may not invite and lead a district court into making an error and then complain of the error on appeal. The invited error doctrine may preclude a challenge to an instruction when the district court gives a defendant's requested instruction to the jury; when the defendant agrees on the record to the specific wording of a jury instruction; or when the defendant proposes the district court's response to a jury question.

         4. When presented with competing expert opinion testimony, a district court judge acting as fact-finder has the authority and responsibility to assess witness credibility and to weigh the conflicting evidence in order to reach a decision, even though the ruling may comport with one expert opinion and contradict another expert opinion. In the circumstance where a district court is presented with competing and conflicting expert opinion testimony, an appellate court will accord a great deal of deference to the district court's decision.

         5. It is an abuse of discretion for a district court to adopt a pretrial ruling that disposes of a discretionary determination automatically, without analyzing the factors that would enter into the discretionary decision; i.e., it is an abuse of discretion to refuse to exercise discretion or to fail to appreciate the existence of the discretion to be exercised in the first instance.

         6. When faced with a cumulative error claim, an appellate court conducts an unlimited review of the entire record to determine whether the totality of the circumstances establishes that the cumulative effect of trial errors substantially prejudiced the defendant and denied the defendant a fair trial.

         Appeal from Johnson District Court; Thomas Kelly Ryan, judge. Judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Korey A. Kaul, of Kansas Appellate Defender Office, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellant.

          Steven J. Obermeier, senior deputy district attorney, argued the cause, and Stephen M. Howe, district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, were with him on the brief for appellee.

          Johnson, J.

         A jury convicted Maurice Orlando Stewart of felony murder, aggravated robbery, burglary, and theft for incidents occurring in a hotel room occupied by Stephen Cook, located in the same facility where Stewart was staying at the time. Stewart was accused of burglarizing Cook's room to steal a laptop computer and later returning to the room to kill Cook while robbing him of his wallet. The district court imposed a controlling sentence of life without the possibility of parole for 20 years plus 102 months.

         On direct appeal to this court, Stewart argues that (1) the district court erred in instructing the jury on the State's alternative theories of first-degree murder; (2) the district court failed to properly instruct the jury on the element of force required for aggravated robbery; (3) the district court erred in finding him competent to stand trial; (4) the district court erred in admitting blood spatter evidence over Stewart's objection that it did not conform to the test from Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923); and (5) cumulative error denied him a fair trial. Finding no reversible error, we affirm Stewart's convictions.

         Factual and Procedural Overview

         The events leading to Stewart's convictions began to unfold on June 27, 2010, when Cook checked into room 221 at the Econo Lodge in Olathe. Cook worked as a supervisor of a company that was pressure testing a pipe system close by in Kansas City, Missouri. Stewart; his girlfriend, Stephanie Laguna; and her son were staying in room 223, next door to Cook.

         The next day, sometime around late morning or early afternoon, Edye Pool visited her ex-boyfriend, Stewart, at room 223 while Laguna was at work. Stewart gave Pool a laptop without attachments or accessories, telling her it was stolen. At approximately 7 p.m., the Olathe Police Department dispatched an officer to investigate a burglary in room 221, where Cook told the officer that, after work, he discovered his laptop missing, although the carrying case and power cord were still in the room. Laguna would relate that Stewart left their room around 10 or 10:30 p.m. that same day, but she would later hear someone running water in the bathroom.

         Early the next day, about 1 a.m., Leeana Deherrera answered the front door of the apartment she shared with Tremain Ryan and two sons, less than a mile from the Econo Lodge. Ryan was not home at the time. Stewart stood at the doorway, appearing panicked and out of breath, as if he had been running. Deherrera and Ryan had known Stewart for approximately 12 years. Stewart said that "somebody tried to kill him, " and said that he needed to see his brother. Deherrera directed Stewart to the apartment above her but later went up to check on him. She found Stewart in the bathroom cleaning himself and observed that his jeans were "covered in blood" from the mid-thigh to the shins; that he had a cut on his arm; and that he put his bloody clothes in a black trash bag. He would not answer Deherrera's question as to how he cut his arm.

         When Ryan returned home around 1:30 a.m., he took photographs while Deherrera helped stitch up and bandage the cut on Stewart's arm. Stewart told Deherrera and Ryan that three men had followed his car from a gas station to the motel and jumped him, with one trying to cut his neck. Deherrera and Ryan had not known Stewart to own a car. Stewart also told Ryan, "I think I may have killed somebody." Stewart showed Ryan the black trash bag containing his bloodied clothes and told Ryan he intended to "burn them." At some point, Stewart mentioned to Ryan that a "gay guy" had come to his aid after the fight with the three men and that he had "stabbed" or "stuck" this man because he had "sexually hit on him." According to Ryan, Stewart had strong opinions against homosexuality.

         Stewart borrowed Ryan's car around 3:30 or 4 a.m. to get Laguna and her son from room 223. En route back to Deherrera and Ryan's apartment, Stewart told Laguna he did not go to the hospital for his arm injury because he "did not want to have any involvement with law enforcement." Sometime after 6 a.m., Stewart left the apartment with Pool, Laguna, and her son, taking the black trash bag containing his bloodied clothes with him.

         Cook's coworkers became concerned when he did not show up for a 7 a.m. meeting. After repeated failed attempts to reach Cook by phone, Cook's boss went to the Econo Lodge. When Cook's boss and the night manager went up to room 221 and opened the door, they found Cook dead on the floor of the bathroom in a pool of blood.

         Crime scene investigators observed a room in disarray and "a substantial amount of blood." The investigators collected swabs from extensive bloodstains throughout Cook's room. Investigators also found multiple footwear impressions in room 221 and leading next door to room 223, where they found bloodstains in the bathroom and recovered some towels and a t-shirt with staining.

         Later that day, Deherrera and Ryan contacted the police after watching press coverage of a murder at the Econo Lodge. Based on the information provided by Deherrera and Ryan, detectives began trying to locate Stewart as a potential suspect in the murder of Cook.

         That same day, at approximately 10 p.m., a City of Mission police detective conducted a traffic stop of a truck driven by Pool. During a later inventory search of the truck, the detective found a wallet under the driver's seat containing a business card with the name "Stephen Cook." Pool told police that Stewart asked her to hide the wallet. The crime scene investigator who processed the wallet found Cook's California driving license and 23 receipts, 4 of which had bloodstains. Forensic DNA testing on the wallet and receipts identified both Stewart's and Cook's DNA.

         Detectives subsequently determined that Stewart boarded a Greyhound bus travelling from Kansas City, Missouri, to Dallas, Texas, on June 30, 2010. Wichita police arrested Stewart at a scheduled stop in Wichita that same day.

         Two Olathe police detectives interrogated Stewart in Wichita. Stewart initially denied having been in Cook's room prior to his death, but when confronted with the evidence of the stolen laptop, he admitted to the burglary and theft. As for Cook's death, Stewart asserted that he had acted in self-defense, relating different versions of what happened when he and Cook went to room 221 after Cook had saved Stewart from the attackers outside of the motel.

         At first, Stewart told detectives that Cook, who he repeatedly referred to as a "fag, " went into the bathroom, came out without a shirt on, propositioned Stewart, and tried to pull at Stewart's pants as he sat on the bed. When Stewart kicked Cook away, Cook brandished a knife and cut Stewart's arm. Stewart then tried to run from the room but tripped and fell. Cook continued toward Stewart, and Stewart kicked Cook's legs. As Cook fell, Stewart grabbed Cook's arm, causing Cook to cut his own neck. Stewart then fled the room. Stewart maintained that he never had the knife in his hand and did not know what happened to the knife or what it looked like. The knife used as the murder weapon was never located.

         In rehashing what happened, Stewart added that Cook had crawled after him and their struggle eventually ended up in the bathroom. Later, Stewart changed his story-in the first version, Stewart said that his pants had stayed on when Cook grabbed them, but in a later version Stewart said his pants had come down. Stewart also added the details that Cook had grabbed Stewart's "penis or testicles" in varying places in the room and that Cook exposed himself to Stewart during the attack, then buttoned himself back up and continued to attack him.

         When the detectives challenged Stewart's story that he never had the knife and that Cook had cut his own neck, Stewart said that he had the knife once and that he cut Cook only once. Stewart demonstrated himself cutting Cook, but it appeared to the detectives as if Stewart was striking his own arm in the area where he had been stitched. When confronted about the number of injuries to Cook, Stewart changed his story to having cut Cook four or five times. Stewart also described being on the bed in varying positions when Cook allegedly cut Stewart's arm. Stewart's various descriptions of events did not include any struggle or bloodshed having occurred on the west side of the room, where law enforcement collected some of the evidence.

         The State charged Stewart in the alternative with first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder, and with the aggravated robbery of Cook's wallet. The State also charged Stewart with the burglary of Cook's hotel room and the theft of his laptop.

         A lengthy procedural history ensued over the next 40 months before Stewart's jury trial commenced in October 2013. Two of the district court's pretrial rulings are germane on appeal.

         In June 2011, Stewart filed a motion seeking a Frye hearing on the admissibility of DNA evidence and blood spatter evidence, with the goal of excluding testimony from Jeremiah Morris, a blood spatter expert. At an unrelated suppression hearing in August 2011, Judge Stephen R. Tatum ruled that the blood spatter evidence did not trigger a Frye analysis because the evidence did not qualify as new or experimental. Judge Tatum clarified that the defense was free to revisit the issue if anything new came up and could raise the issue at trial if necessary to challenge Morris' qualifications or conclusions.

         In March 2012, Stewart's attorney filed a motion requesting a competency determination. The district court, relying on a competency evaluation report from the Johnson County Mental Health Center, found Stewart competent to stand trial. The defense subsequently moved to reopen the issue of competency and to commit Stewart to Larned State Hospital. The district court, after considering conflicting expert opinions, sent Stewart to Larned, where doctors found Stewart competent to stand trial after observing and evaluating him for 90 days. At a competency hearing in March 2013, the defense presented evidence from two experts who opined that Stewart was incompetent to stand trial. Three experts for the State testified that they reached the opposite conclusion. The district court, after considering the evidence, found Stewart competent to stand trial.

         During the 8-day jury trial, defense counsel informed Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan she intended to renew the pretrial objection to the admission of both DNA and blood spatter evidence to ensure that there was a contemporaneous objection in the record. When defense counsel subsequently objected to the admission of the DNA evidence, Judge Ryan ruled, "I'm not going to make any different ruling from what Judge Tatum had done in the prior hearings. You can bring up the blood spatter when we get to that point."

         The DNA analyst testified that Cook's DNA had been identified in numerous bloodstains found in his room 221. Stewart's DNA was identified on a sock found under Cook, in the hallway leading to Stewart's room 223, and in the bathroom in room 223. A forensic scientist testified that several footprint impressions found in Cook's room, including impressions left on Cook's shoulder and buttocks, either could be or were from Stewart's shoes.

         Just before the State called Morris to the stand, defense counsel renewed the pretrial objection challenging the scientific reliability of the blood spatter evidence under Frye. Judge Ryan clarified that he was unable to locate any written order by Judge Tatum with regard to the blood spatter evidence. Defense counsel informed Judge Ryan there was no written order and that the issue was addressed at a suppression hearing. Judge Ryan explained, "I just wanted to make sure for the record that it is there, " and then ruled, "I'm going to abide by what the previous ruling is by Judge Tatum and overrule the objection at this point." Judge Ryan made no additional findings of fact and did not otherwise elaborate on the reasons for his conclusions. Stewart did not request any additional findings from the court.

         Defense counsel again objected when the State attempted to introduce Morris' PowerPoint presentation explaining his blood spatter analysis and conclusions. Defense counsel based this renewed objection, which was tantamount to a motion to reconsider, on the same scientific reliability argument that underlay the pretrial objection.

         Morris testified that he had spent 3 days at the crime scene conducting a bloodstain pattern analysis to determine where the bloodshed first occurred in room 221 and how it continued into room 223. Morris concluded that the bloodshed from the struggle in room 221 began on the west side of the bed, moving eastward to end in the bathroom. He said the bloodstains were consistent with the victim being on or near the ground while the assailant was in an upright position.

         The forensic neuropathologist who performed the autopsy on Cook testified Cook's death was a homicide. Cook died from a combination of profuse bleeding from 24 to 40 superficial sharp-force injuries or knife cuts and his underlying severe heart and lung disease, including advanced emphysema. Cook also had a fracture of the sternum, or breastbone, 11 broken ribs, and 4 defensive wounds on his right palm where he grabbed or attempted to ward off the knife blade. The forensic neuropathologist believed that Cook did not die immediately and might have survived his injuries had he received immediate medical attention.

         The defense theory was that Stewart killed Cook in self-defense after Cook attacked and injured Stewart with a knife when Cook's sexual advances were rejected. To corroborate the theory and Stewart's version of events relayed during his interrogation, defense counsel sought to portray Cook as a severe alcoholic who led a promiscuous homosexual lifestyle, soliciting men while he traveled the country and becoming verbally and physically abusive when drinking. Defense counsel characterized Stewart's murderous act as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) "panic reaction" to Cook's sexual advances and assault.

         The jury convicted Stewart of felony murder based on the underlying felony of aggravated robbery; aggravated robbery of Cook's wallet; burglary; and theft of Cook's laptop computer. The court imposed a hard-20 life sentence plus 102 months.

         Stewart timely appealed. This court has direct-appeal jurisdiction under K.S.A. 2015 Supp. 22-3601(b)(3) and (4) (off-grid crime; ...

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